Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Stalking the Gaps: The Biopoetics of Haiku

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Stalking the Gaps: The Biopoetics of Haiku

Article excerpt

Examined through the lens of evolutionary literary criticism, or "biopoetics," haiku exemplifies several evocritical

ideas about the adaptive functions of art. It is an exercise in "making special," or marking significant rituals,

a means of promoting social bonding, and a kind of cognitive play that exercises our abilities in symbolic


Situated on the border of evolutionary psychology and literary studies, evolutionary literary criticism, or "evocriticism," or "literary Darwinism," or "biopoetics" (the terms are roughly synonymous, all referring to the application of evolutionary psychology to literary analysis) seeks to explain how literature may arise from and reinforce adaptive traits of the human mind. At the risk of over-simplifying, the argument goes something like this: physical, psychological, or behavioural traits generally have an adaptive purpose in a species. More specifically, they have one of two adaptive purposes: they provide either a survival advantage or an enhancement for sexual selection. Either way, the idea is for an individual ultimately to pass on his or her genetic material, and those individuals who are best adapted to their environment will succeed in reproducing the most and hence their traits will be passed on. Actually, Richard Dawkins's "selfish gene" theory has it that the genes themselves are in control of that process, replicating themselves through our reproduction, and so individuals are simply "survival machines" built to house genes and ensure their survival. But whether we see selection operating at the level of genes or individuals, the assumption is that natural selection operates so as to reward and retain traits that contribute to survival and reproductive success--and to weed out traits that do not. The caveat to all this is the notion that not all traits are in fact adaptive. Some, called "spandrels," may be a byproduct of some other trait.

It is easy to see how the development of things like wings and eyes has an adaptive advantage, or how a peacock's tail might be an attention-getter for sexual selection--but what about literature? The universality of narrative and song suggests that there must be some important adaptive purpose to these things, else why have all people across all cultures through all of human history devoted so much time and energy to engage in them? Regarding narrative, some have suggested that stories can serve the purpose of what neuropsychologist William Calvin calls "scenario spinning"--that is, of preparing us for situations that we may face in life (23). In that sense, literature serves as what Kenneth Burke called "equipment for living." Michelle Scalise Sugiyama suggests that narrative trains us to exercise what psychologists call "theory of mind"--that is, "the ability to assess or predict the thoughts, feelings, motives and reactions of our fellow humans" and our understanding that others may perceive things differently than we do (188). It is actually a fairly sophisticated mental operation to perceive that others might not perceive things as we do--and narrative trains us thoroughly in the notion that all sorts of misunderstandings arise from that fact. Just think of any Henry James novel, for instance, or of any unreliable narrator, where the reader must see that the perceptions of the speaker are not to be trusted or taken at face value. In this sense, narrative serves the needs of a species that Brian Boyd says is notable for its "ultrasociality," helping us sort through the maze of interpersonal interactions we encounter in our daily lives (Origin 101).

But what about haiku? Given how popular the form has become even beyond its culture and country of origin, it seems that here too is a form of literature that speaks to our species in some important way. But it is so slight--there is not much in the way of plot development that can contribute to "scenario spinning," and its subject matter is typically relations between humans and the natural world, and not the interpersonal (or intrahuman) realm that calls for practice in theory of mind or in determining the hierarchies of social relations evident in our conversations or narratives. …

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